One highly touted amazing! fact the media have given us to help make the event more festive is that the explorer is by far the fastest object we have ever sent into space, according to recent news releases that have appeared as the mission nears the 'dwarf planet'. Its speed is about 9,000 mph. It had to be micro-miniaturized so all of its stuff could fit in a small, light-weight package (essentially, one might say, carry-ons only). That was apparently quite a skillful engineering feat.
|New Horizons' exciting (fake) adventure picture|
In fact, and without any element of hyperbole, the great distance from here to Pluto is quite thought-provoking. New Horizons is zooming so fast as to make your head spin. In round numbers (and why not?), it covers about 80,000,000 miles per year (not counting leap day!). That's about 10^8 miles. To put that in perspective we shouldn't compare it, say, to a cop-free transit of I-80 from New York to where we live in central Pennsylvania, though, given the nature of the I-80 traffic, that might take a few light years. Maybe some more space-related comparison would be better.
So, to start with, the nearest star to the earth is Proxima Centauri, which is about 4.24 light years away. A light year is about 5.9 x 10^12 miles, a mere 10,000 times faster than New Horizons, give or take an order of magnitude. That means that Proxima is about 2.4 x 10^13 miles from here (forgetting what season and hence what relative position, the Earth is in at launch-time).
If we have our math close to right, that means, again on the back of an envelope, that a mission to zip to the nearest star or any planet it may have--the kind of voyage that space agencies cleverly hint at without actually promising, would take a mere 100,000 to 1,000,000 years, give or take a few millennia.
Any such exploration is unlikely to involve astronauts! The invention of agriculture occurred roughly 10,000 years ago. 100,000 years ago all human ancestors were scrounging around Africa for wildebeests, roots, and berries or perhaps had started to expand into Eurasia (where they had different kinds of deer, roots, and berries). A million years ago all our ancestors were grunting around in Africa, with some side-branches perhaps in Eurasia.
If a very smart Homo erectus (probably some nerdy teenager) had sent a "Hiya!" radio message into deep space, it would just have got there this week, or maybe next. It will take a while before we hear back, if the ETs got it, understood the early erectine language, had radios, and decide that it wasn't spam and that they should answer.
So, let's plan a voyage to find ETs on another planet! Right off the bat, the space agencies can post 'artist's interpretation' of what's out there, and after all, if it fails, there won't be any humans on earth to know that the money was wasted. Or better yet, here's a far better and more sane idea when it comes to exploring space and searching for ETs: let's have the video game industry (A) try it themselves, or (B) simulate it. They have the funds, and the government has more important things on its plate, like health care and poverty and so on. Of the two approaches, Plan B would make some actual sense, even if NASA, ESA, or SpaceX weren't involved (even assuming their rockets didn't blow up).